Bill English: On his own terms

by Bernard Lagan / 16 September, 2017
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Prime Minister Bill English. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

The Prime Minister is surer than ever about the course the country must take to prosper.

When it came to naming his 10th child, Mervyn English took a stand; the boy would be called Bill. His headstrong wife, Norah, who’d named their four previous sons, said the name would not do for this infant. She could agree to William.

They compromised. The child was christened Simon William – but forever called Bill. He is now the Prime Minister, a man moulded by the tall, clever but unlettered farmer father who pored over the classics and read Shakespeare aloud on the deep south’s long winter nights but also by his stroppy, striving mother who filled her rural Southland existence with children, guests, committee causes – and some chaos.

Until a few weeks ago, the Dipton boy with the gumboot vowels who topped his commerce degree with an unlikely second degree – an honours in English literature – was entitled to believe that he was on the edge of winning the leader’s electoral legitimacy that had eluded him in his 27 years in politics. He still may.

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who tells the Listener he long saw English as his heir apparent, is one who has been looking forward to seeing his protégé finally win in his own right, vindicating English’s decision to stay in politics after the 2002 result, when National was left with just 27 of Parliament’s 120 seats. “He stayed there. He didn’t walk away. He became a very successful Minister of Finance,” observes Bolger of the resurgent economy under English’s stewardship.

English’s peers and the party bosses know his drawbacks – the grey aloofness of the sometime nerd who could glaze the eyes of those at his Monday Beehive press conferences by lingering in the regions or getting lost under infrastructure. But English’s strength, his supporters say, is the intellectual curiosity that, as a young graduate, carried him into the Treasury, welded to the earthy pragmatism he inherited from the questing philosophical father who left school at 12 because his bereaved dad needed his only child.

“This was someone who would come in from the shearing shed and sit down and read L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper,” Bill English says of his father. “He just knew about everything, lots of things.” He also designed and, with the younger boys, built an innovative, time-saving woolshed that featured in New Zealand Farmer magazine.

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“The ultimate feminist”

English’s mother was an indefatigable, unconstrained force, so different from many rural women of her era, who raised, with Mervyn, a family of achievers – 10 of her 12 children gained a university degree. Norah’s own ambition to finish university had ended in her teens with a call to return to the distant farm her ailing mother ran on the wild country of Fiordland’s fringes. After Bill was born, she bought her own farm, close to the main English property at Dipton. It was an audacious move but perhaps less of a shock within the family used to her blazing independence than it was to a stuffy Southland.

Bill English once told the Listener, “My parents were people who always had strong opinions and tended to act on them – to do with farming, education for their kids. They weren’t just interested in politics for politics’ sake. There was a practical interest.”

“She went to get the money from [stock and station agency] Wright Stephenson and they didn’t give her the money. Not because her proposition didn’t make sense but because it was a woman making the proposition. So she never did business with them again in her life,” recalls Bill’s bother Conor English. “So, she’s the ultimate feminist … in those days, women did not buy farms. She was sort of striding out as a chick and she definitely did not have the view that because she was a woman, she was a second-class citizen.”

Conor, a former chief of Federated Farmers and now a Wellington exporter in his early fifties, is the youngest of Bill’s siblings and Mary – who did a history degree and married a now retired Wellington paediatrician – is the oldest. Three siblings trained as teachers, including Anne, who has just retired as acting principal of St Oran’s College for girls in Lower Hutt.

Two decades separate the youngest and the oldest of the English children. In Bill’s memory, the numbers at home at any one time fluctuated: “They might get four or five at home rather than 10.”

As the children ascended the pecking order, they were each given a new watch that conferred extra domestic responsibilities. Bill was milking cows twice a day by the time he was eight, cooking 15 breakfasts, and when he turned 10, he made the school lunches. There was a bleak, anxious time in the family before Bill’s birth: some of his siblings had to be placed in a Catholic orphanage when Norah fell ill with rheumatic fever so severe that she was bedridden for nearly two years.

One of the family, who didn’t want to be named, said: “They would have this relentless group of people coming in. My mother loved people and she found herself out in the wop wops married to a farmer who was totally happy to be in the wop wops. And she liked people, so she produced as many as she could and she had people coming in … and they would have visitors and we’d have these discussions. And we’d have to sit there and listen.”

Regular visitors to the kitchen table included a rigid Catholic intellectual, John Kennedy, editor of the church’s newspaper, the Tablet, and the patrician Southland National MP Brian Talboys, who was Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s deputy.

The Dipton farm – Rosedale – employed full-time staff and was a large progressive operation. In the mid-1960s, Norah was dispatched to England to negotiate the purchase of a huge wheat dryer – making the English farm the largest user of electricity in Southland at one time. There was wealth, but it wasn’t showy. Bill’s elder sister Norah once said of her parents: “They never got into the material thing, which is why Bill’s the way he is. They weren’t into show, they were into substance.”

Conor says of his father: “He adored Mum. There was no point in trying to control her.” Minding the children fell often to her husband who, apparently, enjoyed the task. And so the younger English boys spent chilly hours at the back of community halls and meeting rooms listening and waiting for their frenetic mother as she pursued some 40 causes that ranged over the National Party, Catholic Church, schooling and a doctor shortage – she even helped set a farm workers’ union.

It is hardly surprising, then, that two of the three youngest in the family, Bill and Conor – Dermot, in the middle, teaches in Auckland – were drawn to politics and to the strong, independent women who became their wives – Wellington GP Dr Mary English is married to the Prime Minister, and Wellington PR maven and mayoral candidate Jo Coughlan to Conor.

English, pictured here as Finance Minister with PM John Key in 2011, believes he has picked up some of Key’s political instincts. Photo/David White

Scholarship to St Patrick’s

In a cottage on the expansive grounds of a brick-and-ivy Catholic boys’ college – St Patrick’s at Silverstream, north of Wellington, lives an elderly nun, long retired from the classrooms of the privileged boarder boys. Sister Frances Marie, this writer’s aunt, recalls the day the shy 13-year-old boy from Dipton – the dux of his small primary school who’d won a scholarship to St Patrick’s – turned up in the mid-1970s.

“I never saw any child in my 73 years teaching that had so many pimples. It was bad. This kid from the country didn’t say anything, but I felt really sorry for him. So I kind of took a bit of an interest in him, to be there if he needed me,” she remembers of her first encounter with Bill English.

And he still stands out – for what he didn’t reveal of himself in his class essays. “He never did reveal his personal self – and that was how you got to know kids … You tend to remember those who made trouble and those who made the class laugh. He was there to work, and his work was of a very high standard. I think he was unusually motivated for his age.”

Bill’s own account, to the Listener’s Jane Clifton 20 years ago, is that he “aw … did all right at school. Got into my share of trouble. Rugby. All that stuff. Got a university scholarship.” At university there were no Young Nats, no radicalism, just “robust male” stuff in an intellectually-challenging environment.

Along comes Mary

Bill returned to Dipton after finishing his commerce degree at the University of Otago and tried to settle into farming and local National Party politics – he’d become a party member in his teens. But wanting to get serious with Mary Scanlon, the bright part-Italian, part-Samoan medical student he’d met at university in Dunedin and become close to, he left the farm and drove his 15-year-old brown Holden to Wellington.

After Mary finished her medical degree and Bill had completed his second degree, English literature, he joined the Treasury at the time of the department’s greatest ascendancy – when Roger Douglas’s free-market policies had been unleashed. The country’s farmers – their subsidies removed – were hit hard and many urban New Zealanders began racking up loans to buy ever more shares in the fast-rising stock market, of which they – and a string of flash, newly moneyed Auckland investment company founders – couldn’t see the end.

When shares crashed globally in October 1987, New Zealand’s stock market wipeout was the worst of any developed nation. The country entered a long bleak recession: tens of thousands of Kiwis were thrown out of work and unemployment reached 10.7% by 1992. The Labour Government tore itself apart over the economic crisis it had helped engineer and English came into Parliament on the landslide that ejected Labour and delivered power to Bolger’s National Government in October 1990.

English was still in his twenties, but as a farmer and, later, a Treasury officer, he’d had a ringside seat for the devastation. The maiden speech to Parliament by the new MP for the deep south electorate of Wallace spoke of the hard times that many New Zealanders had suffered through the stock market crash, job losses and the long recession. English lamented the cold indifference of those in power.

“All of those things have a significant effect on the welfare of the people that we dare to govern, yet they are little understood by politicians. We concentrate on the reallocation of economic resources and we presume that people will simply reallocate themselves. They do not; many of the things that the Government does change their circumstances, even if we do not realise it.”

Speaking te reo

Bill English has much in his background that can surprise – his time as a house husband while Mary worked, for example – and just this year, English displayed a surprisingly deep rapport with Maori when, on Waitangi Day, he went to Auckland’s Orakei Marae and delivered a fluent speech in Maori, in which he spoke directly to Joe Hawke, who in 1976-78 led a 506-day occupation of Bastion Point. The occupation came to symbolise the deep grievances of Maori over land issues.

English has been quietly taking informal lessons in Maori for years. His guide has been his long-time adviser Amohaere Houkamau, who has encouraged English to travel more often to marae and to engage with iwi. “It gave him more exposure to that cultural setting and he developed greater confidence,” Houkamau says of English, whom she now ranks as the most fluent Maori speaker of all of non-Maori in Parliament.

Of the Prime Minister’s Waitangi Day speech, she says: “It was a very deliberate decision on his part to do what was required. He wasn’t trying to be showy or smart.”

Cracking welfare dependency

In person, English doesn’t look his 55 years. He has the muscle of the sportsman and farmer he once was and he’s kept his tousled, thick hair and a country kid’s open face. A little paunch testifies to his 27 years behind a desk in Parliament. In those early days, Clifton wrote of English that he was reckoned a hard worker who thrived on discussing policy ideas over a few beers, picking colleagues’ brains and – even after entering the executive – providing National’s most valuable link between the backbench and Cabinet seniors. “He’s always been able to put a contrary point of view, without it seeming threatening to those senior to him who aren’t as bright,” notes one long-time colleague.

English has had stints in many portfolios but it was as finance minister under John Key that he was able to lead much of the Government’s thinking – especially for the disadvantaged he’d talked of in his maiden speech some 17 years earlier.

With Key – who himself grew up poor in Christchurch – English entwined his humanitarian inclinations with actuarial reasoning for an experiment that has come to be seen as world-leading: the idea was to use New Zealand’s deep social data to uncover where best to target initiatives and spending to get people off welfare and out of poverty.

English has described it as “using an insurance approach to crack welfare dependency”. The logic behind it is that small groups of people were costing – or would later cost – large amounts of taxpayers’ money.

English told Key’s biographer, John Roughan: “The fundamental driver of the Government’s budgetary costs is social dysfunction … If we stop a prisoner reoffending, we save $90,000. If we have a group of seven- to nine-year-olds who are going to cost $750 million by the time they turn 30, we need more health checks, healthy homes, social workers in schools. John [Key] has created permission for a centre-right government to talk about public services positively.”

English armed himself with some compelling numbers gleaned from the data to make the case for much more closely targeting long-term welfare-dependant families with a history of crime; actuarial assessments based on longitudinal studies of children growing up in those families found that three quarters of those kids would drop out of school early, 40% would – like their parents – become long-term welfare dependents by the time they were 21. A quarter would have been jailed by the time they’re 35.

Some of those children, English disclosed, would end up costing taxpayers $1 million over the course of their lives. Among the targets Key and English set their government was to shrink the numbers of long-term jobless, reach near-universal infant immunisation and early childhood education, halt the rise in the country’s alarming child abuse figures and cut the numbers of school drop-outs and prisoners who re-offend.

At the top of the list were the long-term jobless – those out of work for a year or more – and on that score English can’t yet claim much success. In fact, according to the OECD’s latest New Zealand survey – released in June – New Zealand’s long-term unemployed – though low by international standards – account for an ever-larger share of all unemployed, mostly since Key and English came to power in 2008.

The economic resurgence

Yet since 2008, when Key and English took office, the number of people employed has increased 18.6%, or by 400,000 people. The country’s unemployed rate dipped below 5% in May – the lowest since the 3.8% just before the global financial crisis hit in 2007. Outsiders might think that in an economy that has averaged rosy growth – around 3% annually – for the past three years, English, as the architect, would be rewarded by voters.

Yet the economic resurgence has its critics. The foundations of the growing economy – surging immigration, dairy exports and tourism – have costs that are now apparent; inland waters are polluted, housing prices have soared and the nation’s infrastructure – schools, roads – are stretched, in some places, to breaking point. Yet New Zealand appears reliant on migrant-fuelled population increases for which it has been ill-prepared to keep its economy growing.

But English is confident about his ability to tackle the task and believes he has picked up some of Key’s political instincts: “Put it this way; I had to live my whole life to have some of the same intuition that he had just getting off a plane” – a reference to Key’s entry to Parliament soon after a six-year absence from New Zealand. English will allow that Key’s – at times aggravating – sunniness has done him good. “I think the way John ran a team and his relentless optimism had quite an influence on me,” he says.

He adds a rider: “But I have learnt to back my judgment.”

It seems a reference to the ghost of 2002 when Labour’s Helen Clark so crushed him at the poll, causing him, English admits, to consider leaving politics – a course he drew back from partly because of how his six children might judge him.

“Staying around was partly to do with the kids – and that I’d always said to them if you get knocked over, you’ve got to get up,” says English.

Exactly 20 years ago, one of his closest political mates, Simon Upton – now returning from Paris to be the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment – told Clifton he had no doubts about English’s suitability to lead National.

“Bill is extremely good at dealing with people, as well as being tremendously competent and politically astute. But he is a long-distance runner. He has never walked all over other people to get where he is. He’s lucky enough to have the skills and the personality to really make room for himself in politics on his own terms.”

As I leave his office, English enthusiastically recalls a book he’s just finished – an epic American classic, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, published a year before his birth. It’s a story of discovery as a man sets out to write his grandparents’ years spent taming a corner on the frontier of America’s West.

We might imagine the book transported the Prime Minister back to the deep south, the place that would set the ambitions of his own life.

Spoken English

Quotes from the first two televised debates with Jacinda Ardern.

The median wage in New Zealand in the last 12 months went up 3.6%, well ahead of inflation.

  • Women’s pay went up quite a bit further than men’s and the gender gap dropped from 12% to 9% and we now have the fifth-lowest gender pay gap in the world.
  • People can’t go shopping with your values. They need to know what impact removing their tax reductions is going to have. On the average wage, they’ll be $1000 a year worse off. Every person who does not have children will be worse off.
  • Wages have been rising at about twice the rate of inflation. You know how we know that? Because that’s how our national super is calculated. The average national wage has gone up $13,000 in the last eight years.
  • Transparency would require the Labour Party to say what the capital gains tax is, the water tax, the petrol tax, the wealth tax.
  • On the first of April next year, because of the package we put in place in the Budget, child poverty in New Zealand … will drop by 30% – 50,000 fewer kids in poverty. I’m proud of that … if we can get [re-] elected, within two or three years, we can have a crack at the next 50,000 children getting them out of poverty … I am committing to that.
  • We want everyone to be able to have a home and the best news for them is there’s 200,000 houses going to be built in New Zealand over the next six years.
  • What’s driving migration is the strength of the economy. Someone has to pick the kiwifruit. Someone has to milk the cows. Someone has to drive the trucks.
  • I’ll tell you the bit where, I agree, we didn’t plan. Five years ago, 40,000 Kiwis a year were leaving for Australia. I admit we did not plan that the number now would be zero.
  • Labour’s plan is higher taxes, bigger government spending, more rules and regulations that will stall the economy.
  • About five years ago, about half of Maori kids were getting to NCEA level two. Today three-quarters of them [are], and were going to push that up over 80%. That is thousands more getting to the start line for further training and a decent job.
  • [Under Labour] there will be a capital gains tax and it’ll include the teacher and the policeman who’ve got married and bought a second house for their savings. It’ll include the person who has started up a new business, and as the value of that new business grows and they sell it, they’ll have to pay capital gains tax.
  • We’ve spent four or five years changing everything, for the way the Reserve Bank works to a new Auckland Unitary Plan and special housing areas, so we can get the houses built and we can now get the 60,000 first-home buyers into them.
  • I do support the [abortion] law as it stands.
  • If countries like Portugal, or Colorado in the US, can show that a more liberal [cannabis] regime would mean less harm, then I’d look at it.
  • A strong economy makes it easier to have high environmental standards.
  • Sixty thousand fewer kids wake up tomorrow morning in a benefit-dependent household.
  • We’re in the biggest construction boom New Zealand has ever seen. For 18-year-olds leaving school, this is the best opportunity in a generation.
  • The National Party is much better equipped to deal with our most dysfunctional families, intergenerational welfare, that’s the policy every party should take on.
  • I got up and saw this country, built from the bottom of a recession to one of the best-performing economies in the developed world.

This article was first published in the September 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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